Okeechobee commissioners on fire department merger: ‘We didn’t ask for this’ County officials say city never asked them to put referendum on ballot

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County commissioners Thursday expressed their concerns about the misinformation and hateful statements circulating in social media discussion about the proposed fire services contract with the City of Okeechobee.

“I want to clear the air on a few things,” said County Administrator Robbie Chartier. “I feel the county’s fire department has taken a beating due to misinformation.” She said the county fire/rescue department is highly educated, well-trained and professional. Twelve fire/rescue employees have associate degrees, four have bachelor’s degrees and one has a master’s degree. They have additional certifications and other training, she continued. On average they each spend about 300 hours in continuing education a year.

“Our men and women are continually training,” she said. “It is a highly professional department. There have been comments (on social media) that our department cannot respond to calls and we need the city to respond — that is not true.” She said the city and county have an auto aid agreement for benefit of all. “There still has not been a call missed,” she said. “We have 14 on staff on a daily basis.” She said the county does not need the assistance of the city’s fire department to fight fires. “The county on its own can provide the eight to 10 people to fight those fires,” she said. “We do that mutually as a benefit to all of those citizens, both city and county residents.”

“We didn’t ask for this,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs. “The city came here and asked us to provide a service agreement.” He said the city should have put together a Request For Proposal (RFP), but they did not do that.

“A lot of the comments made at the city council meeting were incorrect,” he said. “It caused a furor. The five of us didn’t ask to be drawn into this fight.”

The chairman said the county commissioners are being unfairly painted as “the bad guys” on social media. “We’ve been drawn into this debate, and I am not happy with it,” he said. “Let them keep their fire department and let bygones be bygones.”

“This started out as, ‘Let’s see if there is a way to save money’,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens. “We were approached and we were asked to provide a contract. We made it clear to interested parties that we would provide a contract so that we would not take on additional costs.”

Commissioner Owens said the county has been accused of refusing to let the city put the question on the ballot for a referendum vote. That’s not true, either, she continued. “I don’t remember us having any discussion about that,” she said. “We were asked, ‘Can you provide us a contract to explain what the costs would be for you to provide us this service?’ We said, ‘Yes, here is the information that you need.’

“Now somehow we are in the middle of this negotiation that I don’t feel is being done in good faith anymore,” she said.

“If they want to go to referendum, if that is what they want to do, that is their call,” she said. “We are not going to take on additional costs to provide them service. I want to commend our guys and gals who are out there with our department because they have been taking a lot of heat, completely unwarranted. We have a top-notch crew out there. They are highly trained. They do an excellent job.

“I cannot condone continuing on with negotiations back and forth,” she said. “We’re not going to absorb or assume additional costs to provide this service out of our budget.”

“The first day we had our workshop, I sat at a table and I said, ‘The county does not covet the city’s fire department.’ We were all blindsided by the city council,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.

“When we were brainstorming, I said maybe the city should have a referendum. We never voted on whether to have a referendum. It never came up again,” he said. “I am very dismayed that one of the city firemen is taking shots at the county commission,” he continued. “It’s just been crazy.”

He said due to the Government in the Sunshine Laws, the county commissioners cannot respond to a lot of the comments made on social media. “We can’t defend ourselves,” he said. “So we just sit there and quietly get the heck beat out of us.

“Sooner or later, my Dad used to say, ‘To heck with the cheese, just let me out of the trap.’ I want out of this trap. I am tired of being beat up for something we didn’t want to have anything to do with,” said Commissioner Goodbread.

“They asked us to help,” he said. “We tried to help. This was supposed to be a helpful operation and it’s turned into a mess. There is a lot of misinformation being spewed. There is a lot of hate being spewed.”

“It has been the misinformation that has been the most trying of all,” said Commissioner Owens. “It has ballooned out control. I don’t see us getting to an agreeable place here. County staff has worked their derrières off — hours and hours that you have all put into this — and the end result is we aren’t getting anywhere.”

Commissoiner David Hazellief suggested the county commission send a letter to the city council “saying, ‘We sent you a proposal in good faith.’ We’re getting a lot of flack but we want to do what is right and give them one last-ditch effort,” he said. Commissioner Hazellief said if there are things that need to be adjusted between the city and county attorneys, that can be done, “but the basic of the contract is where we stand.”

“I don’t mind having another try at this,” agreed Commissioner Goodbread. “I am not to the point to fall on my sword for it. I don’t mind another good-faith effort.”

Commissioner Hazellief said the county policy is that local people have first shot at employment. “When it comes to the fire truck, if we need to maintain them, that part can be worked out,” he said. “The small things can be negotiated, not the major issues.”

The commissioners voted 3-1 to send the letter. Commissioner Owens voted against it. Commissioner Bryant Culpepper was absent from the meeting.

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